They say it takes a minimum of five years to learn the Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy) Mountain Course. You could quantify this in distance with about 1200 miles being the bare minimum road you'd be covering at race pace. Ask the current motorcycle lap record holder John McGuiness, who has won an incredible 17 times here—trailing the late Joey Dunlop's victory record by 9—and he'll tell you that he's still figuring it out. Even today, he's looking for new lines through corners he could navigate in his sleep, new places to be smoother and ultimately quicker. This isn't hard to accept, considering the perfect lap he seeks to stitch together stretches out over 2.5 times the length of the Nürburgring Nordschleife—37¾ miles with more than 200 turns—and is comprised entirely of city streets and mountain highway.
This isn't anything like the temporary street circuits you'll see in the States, bordered with catch fencing, concrete barriers and strategically placed tire walls. In fact, other than road closures, desultory inflatable fencing and some 500 volunteer track marshals, very few modifications are there to sanitize this historic race circuit that's seen lap-speed averages in excess of 131 mph.
Even though thousands of race fans pool in the surrounding viewing areas, some close enough to watch flying sportbikes and 3-wheeled sidecars pass within mere feet, spectator casualties and significant property damage during the actual race have been pretty rare. The current Snaefell Mountain Course has been an event contested by motorcycles since 1911 (though it was originally an automobile race at its inception in 1904).
The last time a car was allowed to lap the circuit at speed was back in 1990, when Manx rally legend Tony Pond drove a V-6-powered Rover 827 Vitesse to a lap record of 22 minutes, 9.1 seconds at an average speed of 102 mph. This accomplished the goal at the time of cracking the 100-mph barrier in a car, though the claimed stock production nature of the Rover, which was fitted with racing slicks, remains a bit suspect to this day. Since this feat, Manx officials have remained gun-shy on opening the doors to other automobiles hoping to contend for a new record. That is until Subaru worked a little of its six-star magic, convincing the Isle that the centennial anniversary of the circuit would be a good time for change.
The car with which Subaru would attempt to make history was one driven around the streets of New York regularly by journalists such as myself. The plan was to ship the car overseas, have it prepped with proper safety equipment, and find a driver who was both physically and mentally fit for the task of attacking the viciously taxing road course, with a low risk of collateral damage.
To their fortune, they found Mark Higgins, a cool-headed, quick-talking, three-time British Rally Champion and Manx native, who happened to be free during TT week. The prospect of running the TT course in a car was not new to Mark. In fact, it's been a lifelong goal he's both dreamed of and proffered in previous years, backed by other manufacturers, with no success. Now here with Subaru and 20- years of rally experience under his belt, Mark was finally getting his chance.
In preparation for the sustained high speeds over undulating roads, the 4-door STI required some basic safety upgrades to ensure survival of, and hopefully beyond, a single flying lap. Springs and dampers were swapped out for adjustable off-the-shelf Tein units, brake linings were replaced with Mintex pads (stock calipers and rotors retained) and a set of Pirelli's new street-legal P Zero Trofeo tires were mounted. Why would someone consider these safety items? Well, under the speeds and stresses the Subaru's suspension would be operating, most factory dampers would cavitate, those stock brake linings might incinerate and the stock tires could delaminate. Additional protection to the occupants in case of an "oops" moment included a 6-point Hockley Motorsports rollcage, a Lifeline fire-suppression system and Motordrive competition seats replete with Sparco harnesses.
As a rally driver by trade, Higgins is no stranger to danger. But here on his second lap ever on the course, traveling in excess of 150 mph at the exit after the downhill section of Bray Hill, he's cranking the front wheels from lock to lock quicker than he's ever had to. It's a massive 150-mph tank slapper he's trying to mitigate, resulting from the intense compression forces of the downhill transition, and he'll need to succeed if he's going to save his bacon and that of R&T videographer Chris Cantle, who's riding shotgun collecting footage. It doesn't take a modern-day Einstein to know what role a 3500-lb. vehicle plays in the F = mA equation as spectators went diving over hedges for fear of becoming a yet another statistic in the TT's storied history. Fortunately for Higgins (and Cantle), his innate ability to do exactly what's needed, when it's needed, kept the STI on the road and in sound enough condition for a third lap attempt on the final day of the races. Needless to say, the former record was obliterated as Higgins executed a heroic run at 19 minutes, 37.4 sec., averaging a blistering 115.4 mph—just one mile an hour slower than the fastest sidecar.
There are many who believe the Isle of Man to be a mythical place, one that wears the three-legged Manx Triskelion of ancient legend with great pride. Having experienced it in person, I think the fairy tale lies more in the 80,000 people who reside there (the population jumps to 150,000 during the TT), living and breathing racing enough that events like the TT have survived the increasingly stringent regulations of modern times. Subaru has signed on to be the official car partner for this incredible event for the next two years, with no announced plans of attempting to better their legacy just yet. If you have the means, I suggest you make the trek out there next May or soon thereafter, for this is indeed a marvel of motorsports that won't last forever.